In the reality TV game show ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ a young woman is locked in a tank of snakes. She is terrified of snakes. A man who’s not a good swimmer is shut in a dark tunnel leading to a deep tank with scary water critters. Others are buried in a dark tomb with rats and insects dropping all around them.
These people do this through choice.
They know exactly when the terror will start and when it will end. They have a get-out card. If the terrified contestants shout “I’M A CELEBRITY – GET ME OUT OF HERE!” they will be rescued immediately. There is a team of medics on hand, just in case.
They know that however much they hate the ordeal, they are safe.
Imagine how it must be for Marco.
After some weeks in kennels he has a wonderful new home. But, as soon as he leaves the sanctuary of the house and garden he is terrified.
The gate opens and a world of horror is beyond.
Vehicles – small, large, fast, slow, noisy, smelly – are passing. There are bikes and runners. He lunges and barks, attack probably being the best form of defense.
In the open he is on high alert all the time. He barks at wind in the trees, at birds flying overhead and at distant lights.
Being in the boot of their car sends him into a meltdown. A covered crate makes no difference.
Unlike the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ contestants, Marco has no way of knowing that he is, in reality, safe.
It’s an educated guess that for the first three and a half years of his life the Staffie mix will have had little exposure, if any, to the world outside a house and garden. Any journey in a car would probably have taken him through this outside hell and ended somewhere like the vet. No wonder he’s terrified.
All good dog owners give their dogs long walks, right?
Like the conscientious dog owners they are, wanting to do the very best for their gorgeous but troubled dog, they had been taking him out for walks from the start.
Unfortunately, unlike the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ contestants, Marco doesn’t have choice. He can’t know that in reality he is safe. He can’t know that the ordeal will only last a set length of time and then it will end. The dog has no ‘I’M A TERRIFIED DOG – GET ME OUT OF HERE!” option.
See this: What fear does to the body – dog or human.
Marco is gorgeous. Indoors he is friendly without being pushy, he’s gentle and affectionate. It’s probable that after just six weeks with them he’s not yet shown all his true self. His body language is what I would call ‘careful’. He shows signs of anxiety at unusual times like when he’s called through a door he lowers his head.
With a dog so obviously fearful of the outside world (the rescue apparently didn’t see this side of him) it’s common to suggest to new owners that the dog isn’t taken out at all for three weeks.
People find this hard.
Let a dog get used to his new environment – house, garden and new people first. Just imagine the enormity of being trapped in a totally new world over which you have no control.
It’s all to do with trust in his humans, with Marco feeling safe. No animal, or human, willingly goes somewhere he believes is life-threatening. Keeping fit and exercise is an irrelevance compared to feeling safe.
If our guesses as to his previous home are correct, he’s not had much exercise in terms of long walks in all his life so far, so neither he nor his body will miss it.
They will now work slowly, always keeping in mind Marco’s comfort threshold. He’s fine in the house. He’s fine in the garden. When the gate opens he panics.
He is terrified.
He transforms into a lunging, pulling and barking beast.
They will now walk him around house and garden only, teaching him to walk on a loose lead. The teenage son was soon walking him about at his side with no lead at all.
They need to get him okay with the traffic on the busy road outside. He has to negotiate the footpath before going anywhere else.
With Marco on a long, loose lead they will open the gate and find his threshold distance – where he is aware of the passing traffic but can cope; it could be right down the garden. As the vehicles pass and Marco is watching them, they will rain chicken on him. If he won’t eat, he is still over threshold. He will have the freedom and choice to retreat further.
With lots of short sessions, with vehicles at a safe distances heralding food, over time his threshold will get closer to the road.
The car is another thing to work on but not until he’s okay walking towards it and around it. Little by little.
It is likely that with slow and patient work Marco will suddenly surge ahead and some of the other things that terrify him in the large and unfamiliar world won’t seem so scary.
He will have absolute trust in his humans if they allow him to choose what he is ready for.
He now can shout “Get Me Out of Here!”
He can choose!
If with his body language he shows uneasiness they will make things alright. If with barking he shouts “GET ME OUT OF HERE!”, they will do just that. Beat a retreat.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Marco and because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. Listening to ‘other people’, finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear is concerned. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)